Pianist Awadagin Pratt, one of the great keyboard artists of our time, an artist who seems able to play, convincingly, just about anything, returned to the Triangle at the first of October for a two-day visit to Duke, where his public appearances encompassed a master class and a recital that reaffirmed – if reaffirmation were needed – his world-class status. The concert, given in Reynolds Industries Theatre under the auspices of Duke Performance’s Piano Recital Series, was performed on one of the University’s four new Steinway pianos, and a handsome, glistening beauty it is, too.

Following the DP director’s welcome and customary no-cell-phones-or-texting warning, Pratt came onto the platform, commenting that folks were welcome to “Twitter away.…” The evening began with two sonatas by Haydn, the 200th anniversary of whose death is being observed this year. (As Pratt said, “There’s no hidin’ from Haydn!”) It’s not unusual to start a recital with something by Papa H, but on this occasion, the strength and power of Pratt’s playing proved at once bracing and breath-taking. In the short E Major Sonata (H.XVI:13), a Scarlatti-like gem of unusual brevity, and in the far more mature and developed Sonata in B-flat, (H.XVI:41), the second of three published in 1784, Pratt delivered substance aplenty with the expected charm and grace, demonstrating that – as Marc-André Hamelin had shown during his last local visit – there can and probably should be some real “meat” on Haydn’s bones. The crowd responded warmly.

Remarks from the stage and several examples from the next work, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31, in A-flat, Op. 110, helped place the program in perspective. Pratt reminded us that Haydn was Beethoven’s teacher, and of course Beethoven charted the path for many composers – including Liszt – who followed him. But what is it about these late Beethoven sonatas? Because they seem off-putting to some listeners (radio station WQXR, as it moves next week to a new frequency in New York, has banned these works from air-play), it’s always good to hear them, especially when delivered by an interpreter with Pratt’s prodigious technical gifts and artistic understanding. His work provides testimony to the fact that classical music is a great renewable resource – no two performances are ever the same, so listeners may experience constant rediscovery. Pratt crawled within the skin of this serene work and cast some new light on its magic and mystery.

Following the intermission came the Prelude, Fugue and Variation, Op. 18, of Franck, an organ work transcribed for piano by the “American pianist of English birth” (as New Grove puts it), Harold Bauer. Like Pratt, Bauer was also a violinist, which may account, in part, for the singing lines that may be heard from both artists, as pianists. In any event, Bauer was one of our great if now lamentably unsung interpreters – his recording of the Brahms Quintet, with the Flonzaley Quartet, set the high-water mark for many years – and his adaptation of this splendid score sounds totally idiomatic, as if it had been intended for piano all along – but of course a healthy portion of the effectiveness of this reading stemmed from Pratt’s commitment to the music and his involvement with it, from time to time demonstrated by some left-foot counterpoint. (The generally fine notes by Susan Halpern mentioned that this was a harp transcription!)

Last on the formal program was Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, one of the repertoire’s biggest pieces, a work that separates sheep from goats with a vengeance. There are two main ways to approach it (along with many blends and variants): it can be an exercise in bombast, with the lyrical passages stated in bold relief, or it can be an exercise in radiant outpouring, with the bolder, more dramatic passages presented as integrated parts of the overall landscape. It was this latter approach that Pratt espoused, making much of the work’s many singing passages, projecting the louder sections with superbly controlled power, and, throughout, revealing the music with astonishing precision and clarity. At the end there was a big ovation; after being recalled several times, Pratt obliged the audience with the splendid Nocturne for left hand by Fred Hersch (b.1955) – particularly welcome as music by a contemporary American – and then with “Les Barricades Mistérieuses,” an utterly charming miniature (originally for harpsichord) by François Couperin.  These closing pieces showed that – among other things – Pratt really can play just about anything and make one think, at the time, that his interpretation is the best there is or can be. At the end, folks floated away into the night, musically refreshed.

Duke’s Piano Series continues with Murray Perahia on October 20 and Louis Lortie on October 29 before resuming with three more events in the spring; see our calendar for details. Folks who lament the general dearth of solo recitals may take heart – and the complainants owe it to the presenters to support their offerings. It’s a fact that this series, in its second year, is one of the brighter spots in a season beset with more gloom than usual (thanks to cutbacks due to the economy). The fact that Pratt drew maybe half a houseful could be a blessing in disguise for piano aficionados who may have thought there’d be no chance of snaring tickets – check ‘em out!

And please note that Pratt returns to North Carolina on October 10 for a concert with the Winston-Salem Symphony that marks the inauguration of the new shell in Reynolds Auditorium. The pianist’s contribution will be the solo part in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” See our calendar for details.

Can’t make that? If you have connections, the hottest ticket in Washington on November 3 will be for a White House concert featuring Pratt, violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and guitarist Sharon Isbin. Chances are that joint will be jumpin’.